ATHENS — At one point, Georgia football coach Mark Richt conceded Friday, he feared losing as many as a half-dozen underclassmen to this year’s NFL draft.
“It’s kind of scary to think you might lose two, three, four, five, six great players,” Richt said. “If you looked at the worst-case scenario for who might leave, there was certainly going to be a youth movement around here.”
As it turned out, though, all of Georgia’s draft-eligible juniors except tight end Orson Charles decided to return for their senior seasons.
Among those who seriously considered entering the draft but decided to stay in school: outside linebacker Cornelius Washington, defensive end Abry Jones and defensive backs Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Shawn Williams and Branden Smith.
“We had options, and we chose to stay,” Washington said. “That just shows everybody we really want to do something big next season.”
Charles announced his departure several days ago, and Georgia so welcomed the other players’ decisions to stay that it held a news conference Friday to spread the word.
Friday also brought word that sophomore backup quarterback Hutson Mason, who had been considering transferring, has decided to remain at UGA, where the plan will be to redshirt him next season to ensure that his eligibility extends beyond starting quarterback Aaron Murray’s.
Without the redshirt, Mason’s eligibility would expire after the 2013 season, the same as Murray’s. But with the redshirt, Mason is ensured of having at least one season after Murray vacates the quarterback position -– or two seasons if Murray decides to leave for the NFL a year from now.
“Coach Richt and Coach [Mike] Bobo offering me a redshirt was a huge pivotal point and my deciding factor,” Mason said. “I was almost 100 percent leaving until I went and talked to them and they said they were interested in me redshirting.”
Mason and Richt acknowledged the possibility that the redshirt plan could be scratched if Murray gets injured, particularly early in the season. But otherwise, the plan will be to go into the season with Christian LeMay as Murray’s backup. LeMay was redshirted as a freshman last season.
Mason said that if he had left, he would have sought to transfer to another FBS school, meaning he would have had to sit out next season. So it made sense to him to take the redshirt at Georgia rather than elsewhere.
“My heart’s here,” said Mason, who is from Marietta. “I want to win a championship here.”
“He’s outstanding in our system, and it fits him extremely well in my opinion,” Richt said. “I think he made a great decision.”
Murray was noncommittal on whether next season will be his last in college before entering the NFL draft.
“I can’t predict what’s going to happen,” Murray said. “We’ll see how next season goes.”
Georgia’s prospects for the season were bolstered by the unanimous decisions of the defense’s draft-eligible underclassmen to forgo the draft. Several said they were advised by the NFL’s underclassmen advisory committee that they could have been selected as high as the third round.
Richt said the Bulldogs had more players than usual consider the draft, “and for good reason because they’re going to end up in the NFL one day.”
Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones made it clear all season that he would be back, and Rambo announced his return several days ago. Rambo told Richt at one point that he would enter the draft, but subsequently changed his mind. Jones and Rambo were named first-team All-Americans by the Associated Press.
Several other defensive players had not revealed their stay-or-go choices until Friday, and some said the decision was agonizing.
“I was still undecided until today,” Smith said. “I felt like I was back in high school being recruited again, just trying to make a decision. I know I made the right decision, sticking with the team one more year.”
“Just the thought of [the NFL], you might get excited about it,” Abry Jones said. “But I thought about the year we could have, and I thought, ‘Might as well give it one more shot and have some more fun in college.’”